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Saudi’s World Cup shock is ‘major step’ for Vision 2030 investment

Person, Man, Adult Reuters/Hannah Mckay
Salem Al-Dawsari celebrates scoring Saudi Arabia's winning second goal against Argentina, one of the favourites to win
  • King declares today a holiday for all students and employees
  • 2-1 win over Argentina seen as validation of investment in sports
  • Hosting bids include Asian Winter Games – and maybe the World Cup

Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over Argentina in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is proof that the country’s Vision 2030 strategy is working and will encourage leaders to continue to make huge investments in the sports sector, according to experts.

The Ministry of Sport and Ministry of Tourism have set an ambitious target for sports to contribute 0.6 percent of GDP by 2030, up from approximately 0.2 percent today, with the purpose of also boosting international tourism numbers.

Recently there has been an increase in the number of major sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia, including the inaugural Formula 1 race in Jeddah last year, several world championship boxing events and the Saudi International golf tournament.

This momentum will be boosted by Tuesday’s 2-1 win by Saudi Arabia over one of the favourites to lift the World Cup trophy next month, said Ben Gordon, a sports diplomacy expert at Albright Stonebridge Group.

“Major Saudi investment in developing its sports landscape will continue regardless of how the team performs at the World Cup, but the country will see this victory as a sign that its sports programmes are working,” he said.

“The commitment to investment is already huge and this will be seen as a validation of that commitment. One of the objectives of the Quality of Life portion of Vision 2030 is achieving excellence in sports, and this is a major step on that front.”

He added: “Another goal of the Vision 2030 programme is encouraging participation in sports across the kingdom. A win like this may inspire more Saudis to participate in football, but it’s hard to measure what that impact will be. That said, it will be a positive one.”

With Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund owning Newcastle United, speculation will undoubtedly grow about the club looking to sign stars of the national team such as Salem Al Dawsari, the country’s highest ranked player, who scored a stunning goal against Argentina.

Ranked 51st in the world, Saudi Arabia fans feared the worst as Lionel Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot before Argentina had three goals ruled out for offside.

But the Green Falcons flipped the game on its head with second half goals from Saleh Al Shehri and Al Dawsari, watched by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, minister of sports of Saudi Arabia, and Yasser Al-Mishel, head of the Saudi Football Federation.

So momentous was the victory that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud approved Wednesday as a holiday for all employees and students.

Wednesday was approved as an official holiday by the King, so Saudi fans could carry on celebrating their team’s momentous victory

Saudi Arabia went into its Group C match opener as huge underdogs. On the other hand Argentina had gone 36 games unbeaten and needed just one more to equal Italy’s world record. 

For star player Messi, it was an unexpected twist in his burgeoning relationship with the kingdom which in May saw him sign up as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia. The deal is reportedly worth $20 million and will see the Paris Saint-Germain player promoting the country through social media posts and trips.

At the time, Ufuk Secgin, chief marketing officer at UK-based Muslim travel firm HalalBooking, said Messi’s appointment may help to modernise the kingdom’s image, as well as contributing to the Vision 2030 target of attracting 100 million visitors a year.

Reports suggest the kingdom will lead a bid to host the World Cup with Egypt and Greece. If successful, it would be the first World Cup hosted in three continents – Africa, Europe and Asia.

Saudi Arabia has also bid for hosting rights of the 2027 Asian Cup and 2026 Women’s Asian Cup as the country commits to building its international sporting reputation further.

Hanan Alowain, partner for the government and public sector at KPMG in Saudi Arabia, said: “Saudi Arabia appears to have begun a new chapter in its sports tourism history. Countries like Saudi are advancing agendas to build a sporting culture that attracts domestic and international tourists. This requires a vast effort.”

According to consultants PwC, strong government support and growing commercial maturity are helping to raise the Gulf’s profile in the global sporting world.

In a short time, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a new breeding ground for a flourishing sports events ecosystem by playing host to some of the biggest and renowned sporting events globally. Sports’ contribution to GDP has already grown from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $6.9 billion in 2019.

Laurent Viviez, a partner and Mena sports practice leader at EY, said: “The success of Saudi athletes in international competition helps reinforce the perception of a young, successful and modern nation.”

He added: “Saudis need role models to stimulate their interest in sports and athletic sports in particular. As a result, Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in elite athlete programmes.” 

Saudi ambitions also include a bid to host the 10th Asian Winter Games in 2029 in Trojena, the destination for mountain tourism within the $500 billion Neom project.

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